The sensation of being physically attached to a bike inspires confidence in some folks while welling fear in others. A growing number of riders and racers have started ditching their cleats in favor of flat pedals over the past few years, and I recently had a chance to chat with one of them about the benefits of their newfound platform.

Veteran shredder Sean Corey lives in Vancouver, Washington, a shadow city alongside Portland’s wafting plumes of freshly roasted coffee and craft beard oil. He began riding mountain bikes sometime during his skate-or-die youth and now spends more weekends at the trailhead than not. Corey lined up for countless XC and cyclocross starts throughout his dirt tenure, always on clipless pedals, as the cultural norms of those genres dictate. In the last several years his riding interests slid heavily toward the gravity category, and in the fall of 2019 he decided to give platform pedals a shot. Thus far, he has largely positive things to report.

Sean approached the step to flat pedals methodically, dedicating ten rides to unattached pedaling followed by notes on which aspects felt different, better, or worse about the experience. From there he hoped to understand when and where flat pedals might offer an advantage. He purchased a set of OneUp Composite pedals from a buddy to accompany a new pair of sticky Five Ten Freerider kicks. He was ready to find some answers.

Looking back through his notes, and picking his brain, Sean remembers thinking that jumping on flats would be difficult. He had the sense that “the bike would just sort of fall out from underneath.” He was also skeptical about climbing without the ability to pull up and across the pedal rotation. To best prep for the trail, he decided to start by dialing in a solid bunny hop technique on flats. Knowing that the technical elements of a bunny hop are crucial for an array of on-trail maneuvers, this was a wise place to begin. He practiced compressing through his feet and scooping the pedals to lift the rear end. Once his hops came as confidently as they had clipped in, he was ready to shred.

Sam Hill’s flat pedal proclivity is so staunch that there’s a set of pedals and shoes marketed under his name.

On the nearby Cold Creek trail system, Sean set out to test his new pedals on tracks that were included in an enduro he had recently raced. On smooth climbs, he noticed a need to focus more on the pedal stroke and scooping the pedal with his foot along the back curve, whereas with clips he could simply pull up. For more technical bits he said, “I have to really use my momentum and power, and really look ahead on the trail.” Overall, Sean doesn’t feel that he lost any power or ability climbing on flat pedals, and he mentioned that the technique required to ride flats has improved and refocused his overall riding skills. Refocusing and skill sharpening are themes throughout the pedal swap.

The descending and cornering advantages worked out immediately for Sean. “You have this confidence that’s just immediate. You can really push into corners, even if your feet are level, and your body position changes quite a bit. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to feel glued to the pedals, but I found that popping in and out of a series of corners was so much more fluid. Carrying momentum out of corners feels much easier and I don’t find myself having to sprint.” As an avid bike racer, Sean knows the importance of exiting corners as hot as possible, and he was stoked to feel more comfortable and confident carrying speed throughout the turns.

Sean riding in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo: Dan Gonzalez

Drops were one of the most challenging trail elements to master while unclipped. “The first couple of times I did drops that I was totally fine with clipped in, it was shocking. I did a few smaller drops and landed hard on the pedal. I had to really hone that skill set of making sure my heels were dropped and making sure my body position was perfect off the drop. And now it’s second nature.” This sensation of the bike falling out from underneath was unnerving for Sean, and it quickly forced him to rethink and refine his form.

Aerial skills are the number one piece that he wanted to test, and fortunately, that’s where he found the greatest improvement in his riding. Between the foot position, and the confidence that comes with the easy-eject-option, he’s been able to drastically improve his jumping technique. He noted that jumping with flats requires a more precise technique than clips, and that forced learning improved his ability to jump almost immediately. Some of the nuances Sean noticed were that he needed to preload the bike more and use his feet to drive through the face of the jump. “You have to rely on that, because you can’t rely on pulling your foot up if you [mess] up in the middle of it. The scooping technique I learned while practicing bunny hops translates really well.”

Some flat pedal tips with Trail Boss Jeff Lenosky

Regarding foot position, Sean says that “on climbs I put my foot in that same position I would if I was clipped in, but for descending I place it a little more forward so I have that toe wrap.” He did mention that one less than favorable aspect of moving to flats comes up whenever he manages to place his foot too close to the crank arm, resulting in a pinching or trapped sensation. He recalled that placing his foot too far toward the outer edge of the pedal hasn’t been an issue, but when his foot contacts the crank arm he has to look down and reposition it.

Sean has since fully converted to flat pedals. He said that he will still race enduro in clipless pedals for the pure power advantage, and may do some longer backcountry adventures clipped in, but the longer he rides clipless the more reason he is finding to continue doing so. It took him about four rides to feel comfortable on the pedals and he began focusing on improving his body position from there.

I will soon be giving flat pedals a go for the first time since my youth, and look forward to sniffing out some of these potential benefits that Sean experienced. If you have recently switched from clips to flats, please share your story in the comments. We would love to hear what techniques you used, what feels different, and what pedals you mount up for the ride.

Sean’s perceived flat pedal advantages

  • Gained cornering confidence with the ability to dab.
  • More comfortable jumping with added mobility on the bike and no concern about clipping out.
  • Renewed focus on all skills thanks to the new platform, with some notable skill improvement.
  • Flats require a more full-body bike handling balance that adds focus and engagement.
  • Near infinite foot positions
  • Easier to bail out or move around on the bike.
  • No more issues with loose cleats, sloppy pedal springs, or mud-packed cleats.
  • It’s easier to drive to the trail in flat pedal riding shoes.
  • You get cool new shin scars.

Possible disadvantages

  • Shin scars.
  • Loss of power.
  • Slightly less clearance to pedal through rocks and tight turns.
  • Consistent foot placement requires more attention.
# Comments

  • Richard Shoop

    Great article. I have been a dedicated flat pedal rider since the beginning. I ride with someone who only does clipless and have no problems hanging with them. They definitely help you learn proper techniques. By the way, the OneUp Composite Pedal/Five-Ten Shoe Combination is great.

  • Prospector2k

    I’ve only been riding a couple of years and will likely stick with flats for the foreseeable future. As a beginner, I was getting pedal bites a lot. I got a pair of G-Force soccer shin guards for some protection. They are so light you don’t notice them and can wear them all day. I still wear them any time I’m not using knee pads for downhill. They have saved me a lot of scars and stitches. Get the soccer version instead of the MTB version since they are cheaper and actually provide more coverage.

    5-10s and RF Chester flats.

  • Claude Bike

    Actually my biggest fear while thinking of using flats is that I won’t be able to climb the most technical climbs…or am I wrong?

  • Mr Mojo Risin

    I rode with flats for the first few years i mountain biked. I eventually switched to clipless, there were a few growing pains but I’m so glad I did and wish I had done it sooner. Besides having a much better pedal stroke, the biggest benefit in my opinion is riding technical features. Even with dedicated Fivetens, my feet would often pop off the pedals through technical sections like gnarly rock gardens or pedaling up a technical feature. Clipped in that never happens and as long as my legs keep churning, I clear through without dabbing. Unless I’m riding downhill enduro courses at a bike park, I’m clipped in.

  • PhantonRider86

    As a kid I was on flat pedals all the time. Then got clipless when I started riding mountain bikes. I rode clipless for about 18 years, then recently switched back to flats and even more recently switch to Pedaling Innovations Catalyst pedals. I have no affiliation with the company, but I can say that I love these pedals ! With the Catalyst pedals I feel I have actually GAIN more power and much more stability with the mid-foot position that supports the entire arch of your foot ! So for me, it is a win/win situation !

  • m.krupp

    Maybe it is just me but clipless seems like a safety issue. One of my draws to mountain biking is dealing with the danger but not taking unnecessary risks. Being able to jetison at any time allows me to take more chances and to control my crash when it goes wrong. Based on the article it also appears riding flats adds some skills and options. I prefer flats and don’t get clipless but to have never tried it so I admit to being ignorant of the other side.

  • Nadia Patricia

    I’ll dust off my soccer shin guards! Thanks for the idea, Prospector2k. I am a beginner mountain biker still working on confidence and being clipped scares the heck out of me. I like that with flats I can jump off the bike or put a foot down when things get scary. Maybe as I keep riding I’ll make the switch, but using flats reminds me of the old days as a kid with my padded top tube and stem on my bike.

  • Topher Osborn

    I think, like anything, it depends entirely on the type of riding you do and your Personal preference. I clip in most of the time. I love the feel when riding CX, which is mostly what I ride. Also I ride a steel hard tail. So clipping in helps to keep me on the bike in some higher tempo bumpiness or when using momentum to plow through a rock garden. I also prefer the feel while climbing. I do sometimes pull directly up With my pedal in situations of dire need, and I’m unable to do this on flats. That said, you can climb great on flats too. Just a different technique. Sometimes I ride flats when I’m camping or don’t want to futz with cycling gear. If you’ve only tried one, might as well try the other and see how it suits you, your bike and how you like to ride? Isn’t that what we all secretly love? The never ending pursuit of trying new gear?

  • donovanpb1

    Good article. I’ve got SPD clipless pedals on my hardtail. I enjoy using them on “groomed” singletrack type riding conditions (ie Glacial Hills in Bellaire, MI). However, I ride a full suspension bike in Western NC. I’ve got flats for that. For me, when I’m riding at Bent Creek or Dupont State Forest’s root and rock ridden trails, I like being able to bail on a moment’s notice. I can’t do that clipped in.

  • John Long

    I made the switch last summer when I attended a clinic that required them. My learning curve was quite steep and I was very apprehensive about becoming airborne on flats. Some experience was all I needed and being required forced me to make the switch and gain that experience. I still race XC clipped in. Riding flats helped me identify holes in my pedal stroke and it also helped me to become more conscious of my body position and balance. I had a couple of crashes clipped in that resulted being tangled up in the bike that wouldn’t have happened had I been on flats. I don’t intend to totally abandon clipless pedals, but flats are how I spend 90% of my riding.

  • jashay77

    Thanks for a good article, but ‘shin scars’ are better categorized as ‘definite’ downsides of flats!

  • Oldandrolling

    In my opinion, people generally use clipless pedals for speed and efficiency on fast tracks. This is all well and good if than is what your goals align to. Flat pedals may not provide the top speed or efficiency but, you have more freedom of foot movement for various trail features to enhance your balance and leverage.

  • the_grip

    I’ve been riding clipped in after starting flat pedal and I wouldn’t go back. There is a small learning curve – seven near misses and the you are a clip-on vet. The pros far outweigh any cons that I can see

  • mlloyd007

    I rode clipless exclusively for over 25 years on mostly XC type rides, then tried flats for a jump clinic that required them. I ride both now, but tend toward flats because for me they are vastly superior for jumping and cornering. Technical climbs on flats require a better technique than clipless, and generally I feel that riding flats forces you to learn a better/more efficient riding technique. Specifically, flats require you to generate tension between your pedals and the bars which really integrates the rider with the bike, and in my opinion is a much more elegant technique than isolating the hands from the feet and relying on the mechanical connection with the pedals.

  • timcoleman

    Flats are just so dang convenient to ride with. I often ride in my work boots after trail work and in sandals when I just want to chill. I use large plastic pin pedals so I don’t get bloody shins. I occasionally slip off of a pedal but it’s not a big deal and can usually recover quickly. I also like to bushwhack on unmarked trails where cleats wouldn’t be much fun. I prefer to ride through the forest in a zen like state and not worry too much about performance. Heck I just went back to riding fully rigid so maybe I’m just old school.

  • rmap01

    Started riding flats & switched to clipless. Then when I had a pedal issue I put the flats back on. It was immediately apparent how poor my technique was as I was clearly relying on my clips to pull the bike up. The point made in the article about getting your bunny hop technique dialed in on flats is a critical one and will benefit your riding regardless of the pedals you use. Now I switch it up between flats and clipless every so often. While I would encourage beginners to start on flats, as others have stated, I think everyone should experiment with both.

  • skypig

    Since I was a child, I have been “strapping” then clipping in. On road bikes initially. And from my first mountain bike.

    The first cages included leather straps that once done up meant feet were NOT coming out without manual release. (Yes, I’m old)

    For years I have been riding with Crank Bros “Eggbeaters”. I love them. So fast and reliable to release. Recently I had a front end “lose” and my foot was on the ground before I knew it. I was actually surprised.

    More recently I cartwheeled over a jump and detached one Hamstring from the bone. The surgeon assured me it was due to that foot remaining clipped in at the crucial moment. And barred me from clip In peddles for three month recovery.

    I also signed up for some coaching (Unbelievably good, in so many ways – anyone on the Sunshine Coast QLD should look at it!!)
    They also recommend flats to learn the correct technique. (Which, after 3 lessons is coming along great)

    The first few rides on my new bike, with freshly attached Hamstring, Five 10s, and V12s felt pretty un confident. (for several obvious reasons)

    My 3 months are up, but still doing coaching and riding on the flats.
    I don’t feel there is much advantage in the flats. But am slightly nervous now about returning to the eggbeaters.

    I ride kind of “Old Mans Enduro” style. Pedal up plenty of hills, but enjoy the jumps/berms/obstacles on the way down the most.
    (Previously I’d clip in for anything, no matter how technical. I was so fast to get out, I was considering putting the egg beaters on my unicycle. Never got past “considering”!!)

    As I get better technique, and “used too” the flats, the less sure I am, that I’ll return to clip ins.

  • jgmtb

    I think everyone should have one bike in their stable with flat pedals. It feels simpler, how we rode bikes as kids. I enjoy carving corners and riding through gravel on my city bike- it helps remind me of simply, yet effective techniques like dropping heels to push the bike through rough stuff, and shifting weight properly (as opposed to just jumping up) to pop off curbs.

  • sl8on

    Skypig, like you, I am an usually the old man on the trail and have witnessed the progression from rat traps to toe clips and straps to clipless and now to flats. I remember thinking after I switched to toe clips and straps “This is great!” I can tighten them down to keep my feet attached to the pedals or keep them loose to quickly bail out. I also discovered a middle ground; tight enough to keep me attached to the pedals most of the time, but also loose enough that I could pull my foot out if needed. I contemplated switching to clipless, but never did. This was largely due to fear of crashing while clipped, but also because it would prevent spur of the moment rides with whatever footwear I had at the time.
    I have to admit that I look at today’s flat pedal enthusiasm with skepticism. Yes, flat pedals force the rider to focus on skills and technique. They also allow quick bail outs when needed. But are they really superior to my old fashioned toe clips and straps? Or is this more of a do what you feel comfortable with and what works for you situation?

  • skypig

    “ Or is this more of a do what you feel comfortable with and what works for you situation?”
    This is it.

    I was super comfortable in the “Egg Beaters” as I used them every day.

    Getting to like the flats. Still sometimes don’t have my feet in what feels like an ideal position, which is for me a distraction that doesn’t occur with clip ins.

    Whatever I end up doing, doesn’t really matter, but am glad I’ve given the flats a go, and learned some new techniques.

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